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Our Connection to the Future
John G. Messerly   Dec 9, 2014   The Meaning of Life  

My son recently shared an interesting idea. Suppose we cryogenically preserve ourselves and send our bodies and brains into space, or simply leave them on earth to be reanimated. Even if advanced beings find us in the future and want to awaken us, there is a good chance that our minds will be too primitive to be rebooted. Our futuristic descendants may not have technology compatible with our primitive mind files. It would be as if we come across an old floppy disk or early telephone but no longer had the technology to run them.

Alternatively our descendants may be able and willing to reboot our mind files, but fear that our primitive minds won’t be able to deal with a radically different future reality. In response they might want to download their knowledge into our mind files, so as to better prepare ourselves for their new world, but find that our memory capacity and processing speed are insufficient to deal with the procedure. It might kill us to assimilate all their knowledge. Literally.

In order for our minds to handle all this new experience and information, our superiors would be forced to re-engineer our brains or create new ones. Either way it is hard to see how our personality survives. Despite their best efforts, we might forget our old selves completely, as children do their early childhood. Our old mind files might be incompatible with our new brains. Even if they could run our old mind file on the new or re-engineered brain—thereby preserving something of our personality—we might find our former experiences so primitive that we wouldn’t want to remember them.  Who cares about memories of being human when we are transhuman? Who wants to remember the experiences of being a 21st century hominoid when subtler experiences are available?

Of course if your new or re-engineered brain could access your old mind files, then your personality would be somewhat preserved. Sometimes you might vacate your new mind files to live in your old ones like the crew of the Starship Enterprise occasionally visits the Holodeck. Still, if the new brain adapted to the future, you would probably want to experience with the newer brain. Again, why reminisce about being an ape when you have evolved beyond that? It might be painful to remember being a 21st century biped with limited consciousness in a horrific world. You probably would not long to remember, much less go back.

So the copy and transfer of your old mind file—like the data on an old computer—would preserve, at most, only a sliver of a past self. Furthermore, the old mind file would be transferred into a reality so different from its previous one that if it survived and adapted, it would be unrecognizable. This future self would stand in relation to our current self as we now do to starstuff. We came from the stars, but we are not stars. Our current minds would not be well adapted to the future. They couldn’t be. They were forged in the past. We can’t live in the future, only some sliver of us can live there.

So we live, if we live at all, in this reality, in this time. This is our time. And when that time ends, we have to let go of ourselves. And yet … we do live in the future. When we imagine it, when we long for it, we are, to some extent, there. No, our little egos will never be there, that is a triviality best discarded. But as long as there are minds free to roam space and time we live on … within other minds. No one expressed these sentiments as well as Bertrand Russell in his essay “How To Grow Old.”

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Author’s note – I do recognize these final sentiments are at odds with those I’ve  expressed previously. I’m still in the process of thinking about this.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.



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